Skip to content Skip to navigation

A New Look at our Foreign Policy

Thoughts from Kent Presents
by Stephen Kaye
Wed Aug 24th, 2016

Throughout the heady discussion of the international scene and foreign policy at Kent Presents there were several underlying assumptions that were never looked at in detail. Among them are our role as a “superpower,” the effect on other countries of our projection of power into their spheres of influence, and the premise that America, as a super power, has a beneficial role to play.  Central to these questions is the role of the U.S. military whose size and mission is regularly challenged but was not addressed in the polite circles of retired diplomats, at least not publically.


As mentioned in a companion piece, there was general agreement that the problems of the present “hot spots” can’t be settled militarily. Diplomacy is the only answer.      


America’s superpower status and the size of its military are routinely challenged by counter-culture websites such as TomDispatch, The Nation, Politico, Huffington Post and others. Those others may include China that looks upon themselves as a “rising power” a concept found in ancient Chinese thought and mentioned by former Ambassador Roy.  He cautioned that we should acknowledge China’s rising power status.   


The question becomes less than academic when we question our role in Syria, Iraq and the Mid-East generally.  Why are we a player there? What interest do we have that is worth the investment of dollars, manpower and the risk to our reputation?   The best we can say is that we are there because we are a superpower and we can be there with guns and briefcases.  As was pointed out at Kent, we don't know what we want in Syria. Our action there is unsupported by policy or realistic policy goals.


Neither we nor the muddling “moderates” we support in Syria are going to unseat Assad.  We have declared that “defeating” ISIS is our primary goal, but we compromise that goal by working against Assad.  Are we backing the wrong horse?   Our presence there was initially justified by our intention to replace Assad as Syria’s leader.  That is now outdated by facts that have changed.  Russia is now a player, and a more active and effective one than the U.S.  Russia has not been reticent in bombing the factions we support.  Assad has every intention to stay and he has the power to make it happen.  He has allies that are near neighbors; we are 6,000 miles away.


Syria is in a civil war.  The established wisdom is that foreign states should not take sides.  We were among the first to abandon wisdom in favor of uninformed interference in the internal affairs of a foreign country whose history, politics and social fabric we little understood. The situation there is beyond understanding as it shifts from day today.  The latest estimate is that there are 600 factions in the fight.


If our goal is peace, we should not have been sending guns.  Our original goal was regime change.  That goal is entirely illegitimate and in this case, unrealistic.  It was not only a result of poor intelligence, it was the result of overestimating our own power and underestimating the likelihood of chaos and its repercussions.  


If our real goal in Syria was to close down the Russian’s access to the port Syria provides, then we made a bad calculation indeed.  Russia is well entrenched and intends to stay there. That is no secret. 


That the chaos in Syria and Iraq is directly related to our ineptness in Iraq is generally acknowledged.  We continue in our ineptness by playing in a place we little understand, with unarticulated goals and confused policies.


We should reduce our military exposure to the Mid-East while continuing to support states like Jordan and Lebanon who have been victims of our mistakes. Both have millions of refugees. They are a pressing and totally unresolved problem.  


Another problem with our foreign policy is that it is based on the notion of legitimacy and permanency of nation states which, in the Middle East is a muddled idea.  It is becoming more a place of tribal and sectarian allegiances than of true nation states in the western tradition.  We have adhered to a single state for Iraq which may be unrealistic, especially since the Kurdish region is well along the path of separation from the rest of Iraq.  We should be more realistic and flexible in our statements and thinking about borders and sovereignty.


Finally, it was mentioned in the Kent conference that underlying the turmoil in the Middle East is the huge humanitarian problem that comes from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and its imprisonment of 1.8 million people in Gaza.  Until Israel comes to terms with the Palestinian people, peace in the Mid-East is but a distant star.